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History Of The Christian Church Volume I by Philip Schaff

Section 51. The Synagogue.

Campeg. Vitringa (d. at Franeker, 1722): De Synagoga Vetere libri tres. Franeker, 1696.2 vols. (also Weissenfels, 1726). A standard work, full of biblical and rabbinical learning. A condensed translation by J. L. Bernard: The Synagogue and the Church. London, 1842.

C. Bornitius: De Synagogis veterum Hebraeorum. Vitemb., 1650. And in Ugolinus: Thesaurus Antiquitatum sacrarum (Venet., 1744-69), vol. XXI.495-539.

Ant. Th. Hartmann: Die enge Verbindung des A. Testamenes mit dem Neuen. Hamburg, 1831 (pp.225-376).

Zunz (a Jewish Rabbi): Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden. Berlin, 1832

The Histories of the Jews, by Jost, Herzfeld, and Milman.

The Histories of N. T. Times, by Hausrath (I.73 sqq.2d ed.) and Schürer (463-475, and the literature there given).

Art. |Synag.,| by Ginsburg in |Kitto|; Plumptre: in |Smith| (with additions by Hackett, IV.3133, Am. ed.); Leyrer in |Herzog| (XV.299, first ed.); Kneuker in |Schenkel| (V.443).

As the Christian Church rests historically on the Jewish Church, so Christian worship and the congregational organization rest on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it.

The synagogue was and is still an institution of immense conservative power. It was the local centre of the religious and social life of the Jews, as the temple of Jerusalem was the centre of their national life. It was a school as well as a church, and the nursery and guardian of all that is peculiar in this peculiar people. It dates probably from the age of the captivity and of Ezra. It was fully organized at the time of Christ and the apostles, and used by them as a basis of their public instruction. It survived the temple, and continues to this day unaltered in its essential features, the chief nursery and protection of the Jewish nationality and religion.

The term |synagogue| (like our word church) signifies first the congregation, then also the building where the congregation meet for public worship. Every town, however small, had a synagogue, or at least a place of prayer in a private house or in the open air (usually near a river or the sea-shore, on account of the ceremonial washings). Ten men were sufficient to constitute a religious assembly. |Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.| To erect a synagogue was considered a work of piety and public usefulness. In large cities, as Alexandria and Rome, there were many; in Jerusalem, about four hundred for the various sects and the Hellenists from different countries.

1. The building was a plain, rectangular ball of no peculiar style of architecture, and in its inner arrangement somewhat resembling the Tabernacle and the Temple. It had benches, the higher ones (|the uppermost seats|) for the elders and richer members, a reading-desk or pulpit, and a wooden ark or closet for the sacred rolls (called |Copheret| or Mercy Seat, also |Aaron|). The last corresponded to the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple. A sacred light was kept burning as a symbol of the divine law, in imitation of the light in the Temple, but there is no mention made of it in the Talmud. Other lamps were brought in by devout worshippers at the beginning of the Sabbath (Friday evening). Alms-boxes were provided near the door, as in the Temple, one for the poor in Jerusalem, another for local charities. Paul imitated the example by collecting alms for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.

There was no artistic (except vegetable) ornamentation; for the second commandment strictly forbids all images of the Deity as idolatrous. In this, as in many other respects, the Mohammedan mosque, with its severe iconoclastic simplicity, is a second edition of the synagogue. The building was erected on the most elevated spot of the neighborhood, and no house was allowed to overtop it. In the absence of a commanding site, a tall pole from the roof rendered it conspicuous.

2. Organization. -- Every synagogue had a president, a number of elders (Zekenim) equal in rank, a reader and interpreter, one or more envoys or clerks, called |messengers| (Sheliach), and a sexton or beadle (Chazzan) for the humbler mechanical services. There were also deacons (Gabae zedaka) for the collection of alms in money and produce. Ten or more wealthy men at leisure, called Batlanim, represented the congregation at every service. Each synagogue formed an independent republic, but kept up a regular correspondence with other synagogues. It was also a civil and religious court, and had power to excommunicate and to scourge offenders.

3. Worship. -- It was simple, but rather long, and embraced three elements, devotional, didactic, and ritualistic. It included prayer, song, reading, and exposition of the Scripture, the rite of circumcision, and ceremonial washings. The bloody sacrifices were confined to the temple and ceased with its destruction; they were fulfilled in the eternal sacrifice on the cross. The prayers and songs were chiefly taken from the Psalter, which may be called the first liturgy and hymn book.

The opening prayer was called the Shema or Keriath Shema, and consisted of two introductory benedictions, the reading of the Ten Commandments (afterward abandoned) and several sections of the Pentateuch, namely, Deut.6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num.15:37-41. Then followed the eighteen prayers and benedictions (Berachoth). This is one of them: |Bestow peace, happiness, blessing, grace, mercy, and compassion upon us and upon the whole of Israel, thy people. Our Father, bless us all unitedly with the light of thy countenance, for in the light of thy countenance didst thou give to us, O Lord our God, the law of life, lovingkindness, justice, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. May it please thee to bless thy people lsrael at all times, and in every moment, with peace. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who blessest thy people Israel with peace.| These benedictions are traced in the Mishna to the one hundred and twenty elders of the Great Synagogue. They were no doubt of gradual growth, some dating from the Maccabean struggles, some from the Roman ascendancy. The prayers were offered by a reader, and the congregation responded |Amen.| This custom passed into the Christian church.

The didactic and homiletical part of worship was based on the Hebrew Scriptures. A lesson from the Law (called parasha), and one from the Prophets (haphthara) were read in the original, and followed by a paraphrase or commentary and homily (midrash) in the vernacular Aramaic or Greek. A benediction and the |Amen| of the people closed the service.

As there was no proper priesthood outside of Jerusalem, any Jew of age might get up to read the lessons, offer prayer, and address the congregation. Jesus and the apostles availed themselves of this democratic privilege to preach the gospel, as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. The strong didactic element which distinguished this service from all heathen forms of worship, had the effect of familiarizing the Jews of all grades, even down to the servant-girls, with their religion, and raising them far above the heathen. At the same time it attracted proselytes who longed for a purer and more spiritual worship.

The days of public service were the Sabbath, Monday, and Thursday; the hours of prayer the third (9 a.m.), the sixth (noon), and the ninth (3 p.m.).

The sexes were divided by a low wall or screen, the men on the one side, the women on the other, as they are still in the East (and in some parts of Europe). The people stood during prayer with their faces turned to Jerusalem.

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